Dear Andrew Hacker,
You're welcome. Praising my ability to correctly spell names is setting the bar a bit low, but it's nice of you to say something positive.
I will now say something nice about your book: I agree with you about many issues. Examples:
There are too many mini-administrators, some (most?) are paid exorbitant salaries, and tuition is too high. I am concerned about the amenities arms-race that makes it a priority to have awesome fitness centers at a time when there is little money to provide adequate classrooms and other teaching facilities. I am troubled that so many "contingent" faculty, such as adjuncts, are paid so little, receive no benefits, and are not treated with respect. I think that post-tenure review should be routinely and consistently used to evaluate tenured professors, with consequences for those who are not doing their jobs well, particularly in teaching. There are outstanding students everywhere, no matter how lacking in 'prestige' the college or university.
We disagree, however, about the role of research in universities and colleges, and a few other issues (e.g., tenure). Comments from readers on yesterday's post have done a great job of addressing the researchers-as-teachers issue, including the role of graduate education in a university, so I will not focus much on that specific topic. Instead, I will explain why I did not like your book.
I did not like your book because it is little more than a string of unsupported anecdotes that justify your contempt for professors and your belief that most professors care little about teaching, don't even try to teach well, and try to teach as little as possible. Where are the data that support this?
In recent years, I have seen the teaching evaluations (student and peer evaluations) of every professor in my department and every faculty member being evaluated for tenure and promotion at a higher-level administrative unit in my university. The quality of teaching is very good, with only rare instances of poor teaching, even for the tenured professors. There is likely no general correlation between teaching skill and research success (on this we seem to agree), but I stand by my statement that teaching and research are not mutually exclusive, and are activities that can enhance each other.
I strongly believe that universities can do more to improve undergraduate teaching, and I see a strong positive trend in this direction, even as faculty are under increasing pressure to bring in more grants, publish more papers, and obtain more patents. Through my participation in searches at my own and at other universities, I have seen an emphasis on hiring faculty who will excel at both teaching and research.
In your e-mail to me, you mentioned that, as a social scientist and a journalist, you and your co-author need "evidence". When I read Higher Education?, I was hoping to see evidence for your conclusions and hypotheses. Instead, I saw anecdotes, such as one might find in a blog.
For example, your book starts with the story of a candidate who, in his interview for a faculty position, makes it clear that he is not interested in teaching and is only interested in research. The fact that he was not hired indicates to me that the system worked well, yet you used this anecdote to illustrate your hypothesis that professors don't care about teaching and try to do as little of it as possible.
Another reason I didn't like your book is because you distort facts to suit your purpose of showing how dysfunctional professors are. For example, you do not think that professors work very much. To show that faculty are overpaid slackers, you define "the basic academic workload" as "the number of hours when professors have to be at stated places at specified times." In your scheme, this includes only classroom teaching and posted office hours, and therefore professors at some universities make >$800/hour.
You have anticipated objections. In fact, you wrote that you "..can already hear anguished cries from the faculty club", and so you acknowledge that professors "..do something outside their classroom and office hours." Unfortunately, you are cynical about this something: "But the great bulk of it is less real than contrived: committees, department meetings, faculty senates, and yes, what they call their research.."
What exactly is your definition of "real"?
Yes, indeed, I do spend a lot of time on those other, possibly unreal somethings, in addition to what I call my research, including advising graduate students. You might think some of the committees are stupid (I do too) and that research should be a hobby for long weekends and summers (did you talk to any professors who run labs?), but you should count these hours in your calculations of how much professors make per hour.
Similarly, what is your evidence for your contention that professors don't work as much as they say they do? This seems to be it: "A story is told of a classroom where all the students were busy scribbling as the professor droned on. All, that is, but one, a young woman in the back row, who wrote down nary a word. How so? She had with her the notes that her mother had taken for that class during her own student days." That's the evidence? A possibly apocryphal story?
Another example: At one of the universities you visited, very few of the undergraduates you met had been to a professor's office "to discuss materials from a class". At another (Harvard), a student told you that it was "intimidating" to speak to professors, so students avoid going to speak with professors in their offices. And your point was what? As a professor and a scientist, I know better than to take what students say at face value. I need evidence that it is the fault of professors that students don't come to office hours for help when needed.
There are lots of other "interesting" ideas in your book: engineering is "vocational training", sabbaticals are "sojourns in Tuscany", mathematicians don't need tenure because what they do is not controversial.. the list goes on. I could also mention inconsistencies:
- big football programs are bad, but 3 of your 10 favorite schools are Mississippi, Notre Dame, and ASU;
- tenure forces universities to keep low-functioning professors, but tenure is a "feeble shield" that doesn't actually protect tenured professors from being fired;
- research doesn't enhance teaching because, for example "The information with which a mathematics research project deals is usually inaccessible to undergraduates." (ergo.. the same must be true for all academic disciplines?)
Participating in a small research project as an undergraduate at a small liberal arts college changed my life and led me to an interesting and fulfilling career (despite the fact that I have never spent a sabbatical in Tuscany). Working with a professor who was a leading researcher in his field inspired me more than all my classes combined.
You do not have to take this anecdote at face value, especially not from an anonymous blogger, but I feel that you are attacking, perhaps from ignorance, one of the greatest strengths of our higher education system.